On February 5, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney offered a rare defense of America’s drone policy. He stated, “These strikes are legal, they are ethical, and they are wise.” The rarity of his statement arises from the fact that the White House has stonewalled reporters on the drone program since its inception.
The proximate cause of Carney’s statement was a confidential Justice Department 16-page memo that was leaked to NBC News (PDF).
It opens, “This white paper sets forth a legal framework for considering the circumstances in which the U.S. government could use lethal force in a foreign country outside the area of active hostilities against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force of al-Qa’ida.” (A more accurate wording would have been “a U.S. citizen who is believed to be.…”)
Elsewhere, the paper allows for targeting Americans even if there is no intelligence about their involvement in an imminent attack upon the United States. The passage reads “The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack … does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.” Instead, the evaluation can be based on a target’s history when “there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.” The assessment of “imminent threat” also rests entirely in the hands of the executive office.
The secret memo was undoubtedly prompted by the controversy surrounding the covert assassinations of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in Yemen on September 30, 2011. Al-Awlaki was an American-born citizen; Khan was a naturalized one. Neither were indicted or even charged with a crime. Nevertheless, a drone strike targeted them for death because they were on President Obama’s “kill list.” This secret list, compiled by a secret process, provides the CIA (and others) with assassination targets on foreign soil. The world learned of the kill list only because of relentless investigation by two New York Times journalists; the story broke on May 29, 2012.
Predictably, the NYT’s revelations were followed by calls for a congressional hearing. In a Washington Post (June 12, 2012) article entitled “Obama’s ‘Kill List’ is Unchecked Presidential Power,” however, Katrina vanden Heuvel noted another prominent backlash; politicians and officials condemned the leaks rather than the activities exposed. She wrote “Republican and Democratic senators joined in condemning the leaks. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — AWOL in the prosecution of rampant bank fraud — roused himself to name two prosecutors to track down the leakers.” Heuvel added in disgust,
Please. Al-Qaeda knows that U.S. drones are hunting them. The Pakistanis, Yemenis, Somalis, Afghanis and others know the U.S. is behind the drones that strike suddenly from above. The only people aided by these revelations are the American people who have an overriding right and need to know.
Why is the White House so adamantly concealing a program that it calls legal, ethical, and wise? The national “security” explanation may satisfy some people, especially with regard to future assassinations, but why conceal the very existence of a presidential kill list?
The iron-curtain theory of transparency
Obama assumed office with the promise of an open and transparent White House. On January 20, 2009, his first term began. On January 21, he issued two memos addressed to the heads of executive departments and agencies.
The one with the subject line “Transparency and Open Government” stated “My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency.… Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”
The one with the subject line “Freedom of Information Act” declared, “A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, ‘sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.’” Obama went on to instruct civil servants to “adopt a presumption in favor” of granting FOIA requests.
Obama’s actions directly contradict his words. Consider how aggressively his administration prosecutes those who leak documents. (Or, rather, it prosecutes those who make unsanctioned leaks; Obama has become notorious for covertly releasing information that enhances his image as president.)
The Obama administration has used the Espionage Act to prosecute more whistleblowers for “mishandling information” (a.k.a. leaking information) than all preceding ones combined. At least six people have been charged; the pre-Obama total was three. On February 27, 2013, Bloomberg reported that Obama was “seeking new rules to allow federal agencies to fire employees without appeal if their work has some tie to national security, a move that advocates for whistle-blowers say may hurt efforts to keep government transparent and free from corruption.” Perhaps the prosecutions have drawn too much media attention; a quieter form of crackdown may be on its way.
The administration has not only prosecuted whistleblowers and those who cause it embarrassment; it has also persecuted them. Peter Van Buren observes that the Espionage Act is only one aspect of Obama’s
attempt to sideline, if not always put away, those it wants to silence. Increasingly, federal agencies or departments intent on punishing a whistleblower are also resorting to extra-legal means.… And sometimes, they are moving beyond traditional notions of “punishment” and simply seeking to destroy the lives of those who dissent.
For an example of intimidation by prosecution, Van Buren cited the case of Thomas Drake, an employee of the National Security Agency, who told the news media that a data-collection program could have been done in-house for $3 million but had been contracted out for $1.2 billion. In response, federal agents raided Drake’s house with guns drawn; he was fired and lost his pension; he was indicted on ten charges that could have brought 35 years in prison. Five of the charges were related to “the willful retention of national defense information” — that is, the presence of documents in his home. None of those documents contained sensitive information, however. For example, one was marked “unclassified” and had been posted to an NSA network. Nevertheless, the prosecutors argued that Drake should have known that the document should have been classified.
In June 2011, all ten charges were dropped in exchange for Drake’s taking a guilty plea on the misdemeanor charge of misusing NSA’s computer system. Several days earlier, 60 Minutes had broadcast an interview with Drake and two other former NSA employees in which they claimed NSA had bungled intelligence gathering that could have prevented 9/11. It was widely speculated that the prosecutors subsequently settled because the case was drawing too much negative publicity. Drake was sentenced to one year, which he served on probation.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain
Obama’s words offer an openness that his fists quickly snatch away. What explains this phenomenon? The Ockham’s razor principle of parsimony says the simplest solution is usually the correct one. Or take the commonsense approach of believing what someone does rather than what he says. By either standard, Obama is a bald-faced and unrepentant liar. The truth of the man is found in his actions, not in his words.
The great Oz in the Wizard of Oz was a sheep in wolf’s clothing who hid behind pyrotechnics and a frightening voice in order to convince people he was powerful. The great Obama is a political wolf who authorizes drone strikes on American citizens without due process or public disclosure. Or, rather, his signature on a document is what due process has become.
The public Obama is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, who hides behind noble sentiments and singsong rhetoric. Pull back the curtain and you will see a Nobel Peace Prize winner who has his own kill list.
Like so many of Obama’s policies, the drone strikes are illegal, unethical, and unwise.